One of the things I’m extremely lucky with in terms of industry career is getting to know how different-size companies work.
Startup with 10 people? Check.
Mature software houses with 50 or 200 people? Check.
Multinational company that sells 500 phones every second? Check.
And during this experience I’ve learnt a lot about where specific types of companies win and when they are the worst idea ever.
This article is aimed for you if you want to start your career in 2022 and think – should I start with working for a startup or maybe go straight into the corporate world?
Here are my absolutely biassed thoughts categorised in 3 criteria:
- learning experience,
a. generalist vs. specialist,
b. experts in the field,
c. software and technology,
- stability experience,
a. chain of command,
b. finances and benefits,
- building your future.
I decided to analyse it from 3 perspectives:
- generalising vs. specialising
- experts in the field
- software and technology
Generalists vs. Specialists
Different-size companies offer a totally unique experience in terms of 2 types of learning: generalist and specialist one. If you consider yourself a generalist there’s a high chance you prefer to dig broadly into a variety of things, but this sacrifices the depth that you can go into one topic. Contrary, a specialist will be a type of person who digs deep into one subject, but then – sacrifices a variety of topics they know.
In my opinion, startups will make a good home for all generalists. During my work I often had to juggle between many tasks, one day I was building an ML model, and the day after – I was selling the products to our clients. My corporate experience was totally different – during this time I specialised highly in a single topic and no one ever required me to switch from being a researcher into a web dev in 1 day.
Experts in the field
Moreover, there was also a question of learning from other people – and this is a bit tricky.
Corporate world can lure you with a promise of having lots of specialists you can learn from. It is most often true, but may result in a situation in which you can’t really use their knowledge because you are required to be self-sufficient. I’d risk saying though that if you want to have a specialised mentor, that’s a safe bet to go there.
With startups – it’s totally wild there in my opinion. You can be lucky to run into a startup where someone who founded it really knows their stuff and your learning will skyrocket, but you can also, unfortunately, run into a wannabe-rich boss who has no idea what they do and put the whole risk on you. This is why it’s good to monitor the startup, look up their online presence, see if you or your friends know the employees, etc.
But! One thing you will definitely need in both worlds is a good communication skill – you can check this article to see if you can communicate properly with other professionals and non-professionals.
Software and technology
There is no doubt for me that in a startup you’ll learn the most in terms of not only technology you’ll use, but also software that helps you run your work efficiently and smoothly (unless you have a paranoid boss, but a bit about it in the last section).
With corporate it might be hard or virtually impossible to change the tech stack the team is doing – unless it is a purely research team or a team that does short projects instead of building a large product. It also depends on the fact if the company has their own products – they it is guaranteed you’ll use only them exclusively.
Stability is Important when You Start Your Career
In my opinion in the early stage to have a rewarding career you need stability and ability to adjust the amount of risk you are given with your personal threshold.
This is why here I will focus on:
- stable position with the organisation,
- stable pay and benefits.
Chain of command
Because startups often involve a relatively small team you can expect a flat structure within – meaning you will either directly work with the company boss or maybe a manager who responds directly to them. This can actually be both pro and con, depending on your need for stability.
On one hand, it can allow you to quickly and smoothly solve your problems, ask questions and everyone is within your reach. On the other – it may lead to a situation when no one actually knows who is responsible for what and you will encounter a total organisational chaos.
Moreover, when you work directly with someone who made a decision to hire you, it may be really intimidating at first. My advice would be to:
- ask about the structure a lot during your interview,
- if your potential boss deliberately uses complex words from industry just to intimidate you and flex how awesome they are – run (important thing is to differentiate if you should know those words or are they using it to make you feel worse).
In the corporate world you’ll most often encounter a very deep hierarchy, often spread between multiple countries. This can also be a pro and a con. On one hand, you’ll know directly what is the chain of command there, so it adds to the feeling of stability. But this also means that problems or purchases may be considered for a long time before someone actually makes the final decision.
Finances and benefits
There’s not really much to talk about finances and benefits in the corporate world. From my EU-based experience you’ll most often get a fairly competitive salary with a competitive set of benefits like private healthcare, bonuses for paid courses, additional budget for meals, gym membership, etc.
With startups I would say it’s a bit tricky. On one hand, you may have startup with unstable financial situation and they’ll try to sweet talk you into a deal in which they can pay you less, but they’ll maybe give you some shares, tell you how great your learning experience will be and that soon the product will generate money and you’ll be paid more.
I don’t want to debate here if you should believe it or not – you have to assess yourself if you believe in the product so much you can accept it and in what financial situation you are in. But the one thing you have to remember here is that agreeing for this puts only you at risk. So consider this risk well and understand where else you benefit that outweighs this particular risk.
On the other hand, startups can also be financially supported and throw money left and right. I also won’t debate if in my opinion such a startup will endure for a long time, but if this is the case – you can expect a fairly good pay and even some benefits.
I’d also say that a sweet spot here can be a mid-size company, because they can offer you a competitive salary (to at least lure people from other places), but they might cut this on benefits as well.
Preparing for future to come
For most of us there’s a really small chance that we will stay in one company all our lives. So it’s important to also see our work in a particular company as a step that will prepare us for the future.
And because I already mentioned learning experience, here I want to focus on what you can share outside of the company to build your own presence (or at least use a presence of the brand you’re working for).
The thing is – it’s not simple.
I see the shift in which more and more startups show their work and understand it is a vital part of their branding, but they may also do it badly (I’m looking at you Larry, I know that you’ve read in some smart book that you need a founder story to be successful, but it doesn’t mean you have to do it narcissitically about yourself) In the case of proper branding, you’ll most definitely be able to write and talk about your work and be an advocate of a company you work for.
Unfortunately, there are still tons of startups that gatekeep their precious ideas. And really, I understand that in some cases this one specific way of how you did a thing may be your competitive advantage. But in my opinion, in 90% of cases it’s just recycling the ideas that someone already had and trying to make it work at all or trying to make it work differently to target another niche.
Gatekeeping is also very present in the corporate world. You may still encounter pages-long Non Disclosure Agreements in which you agree not to talk about specific things about your work. Also in such companies you most often do not participate in the branding process itself, and all you can end up with is a small, vague box of what your responsibilities were for the last 5 years.
As you can see – there are a lot of criteria to watch out for when choosing your first place to work.
From my experience, starting with a mid-size company, then transferring to a startup and then to the corporate world was suitable for me. It gave me stability exactly when I needed it, but I also know now that I got screwed a bit too many times – and you can’t really avoid it.
I think the most important criteria for you should be your style of learning and how much stability you need. I also didn’t cover remote vs. office, because I think too many articles focus on that currently – but this is also something you should consider.
If you still can’t decide – pop me a DM on Twitter, I help people like you get what they need.
PS. No Larry was hurt while writing this article (apologies if this is your name!).